Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil (Part 3 of 5)

by | Oct 22, 2005

In analyzing the means by which evil men gain the power to destroy, the question can be raised: Is there some deeper theory that underlies the ethics of sacrifice and gives rise to it?

In analyzing the means by which evil men gain the power to destroy, the question can be raised: Is there some deeper theory that underlies the ethics of sacrifice and gives rise to it?

Let’s go back to our three examples and see if they share something deeper in common.

The Mafia gangster, the cynical exploiter of others, desires money and is unwilling to earn it. Reality requires men to be productive – but he doesn’t feel like it. He has his desires, he has his whims, and they take precedence over all else. His belief that others should serve him is true for him, it’s right for him – because he feels it. So the true and the right for an individual are a matter of what that individual feels. He feels it is so, and reality must snap into line.

Next, we saw the religionists demand that a scientist give up his mind in order to obey the Bible’s teachings. What if observed facts support the scientist’s claims and contradict those of the religionists? That means nothing, say the religionists. Reality is anything God wants it to be. He decrees and it bends according to His will. If He wants dead men to rise or virgins to give birth, nothing to it. He commands and existence obeys.

Last, we saw the Nazis coerce a businessman to sacrifice himself for the people. If Herr Schmidt protests the Nazis’ brutality by exclaiming, “It is my right to do with my factory as I see fit,” the Nazis respond by saying, “The right is whatever the Aryan people say is right.” In other words, the people as a whole are the source of truth and falsity, right and wrong. They demand, and reality follows. The will of the people is omnipotent. Reality is malleable to their wishes.

All three versions of the self-sacrifice ethics rest upon what Ayn Rand calls the primacy of consciousness approach to metaphysics.

The primacy of consciousness metaphysics claims that consciousness in some form, controls reality; that it is fundamental and that existence depends on its functioning; that consciousness is the cause and controlling factor of the universe. In its supernatural form, the theory claims that God is the creator and master of the world. In its social form, it argues that human society, as a whole, is the creator and master of the world. In its personal version, it states that, each individual – for himself – is such a creator and master.

The ethics of sacrifice follow in one logical step. If God is the omnipotent creator and ruler of reality, then He is the source of right and wrong; virtue resides in unquestioning obedience to Him. Similarly, if society is the source of truth and right, individuality and independent thought are not virtues. The essence of moral life lies in conformity, in following, fawning, kneeling, in the toadying posture of Peter Keating (in The Fountainhead). Likewise, if each individual is the source of truth and right for himself, then each man’s desires are the final court of appeal regarding all cognitive issues and all value questions – for him. There is no way to reason out interpersonal differences, for each individual is locked in his own subjective world. Human life is a struggle of whims; differences are often settled by brutality. Conflicting individuals fight and the stronger wins. Man’s life is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “a war of each against all.”

The personal version of the primacy of consciousness theory leads directly to cynical exploitation in ethics – and to crime, drug addiction, random violence. The supernatural version leads to religion, to calls for unquestioning obedience to the deity, and ultimately to a theocratic dictatorship as in medieval Europe, Calvin’s Geneva, and the Ayatollah’s Iran.

The social version leads to collectivism and socialism in some form, whether Communist or Fascist. It calls for individual sacrifice to the nation, the working class, the race. It is the metaphysics responsible for Auschwitz, the annihilation of the Soviet peasants, and the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot. It is the dominant metaphysics of our era.

If the morality of sacrifice is the ethics of evil, then the primacy of consciousness is the metaphysics of evil. In theory, it is the claim that the will of some consciousness controls reality; in practice, it is the means by which criminals, clergy or dictators control rational, productive men. If some consciousness rules metaphysically, then its agents or devotees must rule socially. The result is that those who deal in unreality give orders – and those who deal with reality take them.

We have now identified the philosophic roots of evil’s social power. But to understand better the means by which that power is able to overcome the good, we must ask which of these philosophies of evil is the most virulent.

The personal primacy of consciousness version gives rise to cynical exploitation, to criminals and gangsters who rob honest men on street corners. The supernatural primacy of consciousness version gives rise to religion, which seeks to control the thinking of scientists and, in principle, all men. The religionists want more than to take money out of a man’s pocket; they want his soul. The social version of the primacy of consciousness gives rise to Nazism and Communism, to the modern collectivists who establish totalitarian states to control men totally, body and soul. The collectivists close their borders, lock men in vast prisons, censor all verbal and literary expression, and slaughter millions for the “crimes” of holding a high school diploma, speaking English or possessing one hundred dollars in a bank account.

We are philosophical policemen. Here is a lineup of suspects: three types of parasites. Who is the most dangerous? Against whom must man be most conscientiously on guard? And why?

The Nazis and Communists have certainly butchered far more innocent victims and caused vastly more destruction than any of their rivals in evil. The three leading mass murderers in history, in order, are Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler – with Pol Pot belonging in the same group based on sheer percentages. This is a clue to the relative depth of the collectivists’ evil, but it is not conclusive proof that they are more destructive than the others. The number of victims is a consequence. What we are looking for is the fundamental cause.

To answer this question, it is important to remember that the good is the rational. It is the mind that is responsible for creating every value upon which human life depends. It is the mind that discovers cures for diseases and saves lives. It is the mind that builds transcontinental railroads, interstate highway systems, skyscrapers, and suspension bridges. It is the mind that discovers the principles of agriculture and grows food in abundance. It is the mind that knows reality and discovers truth.

If knowing reality is the source of good, and evasion is the root of evil, then the most destructive philosophy will be the one that divorces the mind from reality and thus provides a justification for evasion.

The essence of the criminal’s approach is the quest for unearned wealth. The criminal is not willing to perform the productive work necessary to create either the goods he desires or their value equivalents. He seeks neither to make nor trade for goods; he wants to steal them. But the gangster and mugger do not want to eradicate their victim’s thinking entirely, merely on one issue: how he disposes of some portion of his money.

Criminals deal only with effects, not causes. They don’t attack the mind at a fundamental level. If the mind is the motor of the world, they do not seek to wreck or sabotage the motor, they merely seek to siphon off some electricity.

In the big picture of evil’s destructive effect on rational men, criminals are puerile, back-alley louts. They terrorize passers-by on certain street corners of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In their own vernacular, they are “two-bit punks” of evil.

The religionists are next. Most significant here is Western religion, not merely because it is the one that most deeply affects American culture, but also because it possesses a belief that fundamentally differentiates it from collectivism.

 

Complete Series

Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil (Part 1 of 5)
In the face of evil run rampant, it is crucially important to protect the benevolent universe premise.

Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil (Part 2 of 5)
How does Adolf Hitler – a dropout, a ne’er-do-well, an unemployed and unemployable itinerant – acquire life-and-death power over the great scientists, industrialists and thinkers of Western Europe?

Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil (Part 3 of 5)
In analyzing the means by which evil men gain the power to destroy, the question can be raised: Is there some deeper theory that underlies the ethics of sacrifice and gives rise to it?

Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil (Part 4 of 5)
Religion is evil – but is not the worst evil that men must confront.

Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil (Part 5 of 5)
The morality of sacrifice lives on borrowed time.

Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the City University of New York. He lectures all over the world. He is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written numerous books, including his novel, A Dearth of Eagles, recently published and available from Amazon.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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